Falls from height are the biggest cause of death in the workplace, and employers have a legal responsibility to protect the health and safety of employees when working at height. This guide outlines the main responsibilities of employers and others in control of working from height to protect their workforce.
Of the 142 people who suffered a fatal injury at work in Great Britain in 2020/21, 35 died due to falling from height. As well as being the biggest cause of death in the workplace, it’s also a major cause of non-fatal injuries. Falling from height accounted for more than 5,000 of the 65,427 injuries reported by employers under RIDDOR in 2019/20. Remarkably, two-thirds of people with major injuries have fallen from a height lower than two metres.
Whether it’s employees using a simple stepladder or advanced machinery, employers must be aware of their legal responsibilities for working at height and the actions they need to take to protect the safety of their workforce.
What is working at height?
Working at height is defined by the Health and Safety Executive as “work in any place where, if there were no precautions in place, a person could fall a distance liable to cause personal injury”. Examples of incidents include falling through a fragile roof, off a ladder and from scaffolding and warehouse racking.
There is no specific legal measurement regarding what is classified as working at height, although some insurers may have specific measurements in their definition of what is covered.
Working at height takes place across a wide range of industries. Some professions, such as roofers, scaffolders, and builders, spend a significant proportion of their time working at height. There are other jobs, such as events, maintenance, warehousing and office storage, where working at height is more ad hoc.
Employers’ responsibilities for working at height safety
The key legislation for working at height is the Work at Height Regulations 2005.
The regulations place legal duties on employers or those who control work at height, such as facilities managers and building owners, to prevent death and injury due to a fall from height. They must:
- Ensure all work at height is properly planned and organised.
- Ensure those carrying out work at height are competent and adequately trained.
- Assess the risks from work at height.
- Select appropriate equipment and make sure it is used.
- Properly manage the risks of working on or near fragile surfaces.
- Properly inspect and maintain all equipment used for work at height.
The regulations state that employers should follow a three-step working from height ‘hierarchy of controls’:
You should avoid working from height as much as possible by doing work from the ground.
If work from height cannot be avoided, you should prevent falls by using an existing place of work that is already safe such as a non-fragile roof with a permanent handrail or by using the correct equipment.
You should prioritise collective protection that protects everyone over personal equipment that protects the individual. Examples of collective equipment include mobile elevating platforms and scaffolds. Examples of personal protective equipment include work restraint systems.
You should put measures to minimise the distance and/or the injuries should a personal fall from height. This may include collective protections such as safety nets and airbags and personal protection such as industrial rope access and fall arrest systems.
The Health and Safety Executive has a useful visual guide to the working at height hierarchy of control.
Employers must also ensure everyone working from height is competent and has the necessary skills and knowledge to complete the task safely. The Praxis42 Working From Height course helps employers and contractors understand the requirements for working safely at height.
Working from height guidance
Measures employers or those in control of working from height must take include:
Before work at height tasks are carried out, employers should carry out a risk assessment. The general five-step process for assessing risks are:
- Identify hazards – look at how people work, what equipment is used and what safe or unsafe practices exist.
- Assess the risks – examine who might be harmed and how, what is already being done to control the risks and what further action needs to be taken to control the risks.
- Control the risks – decide whether you can eliminate the hazard or introduce measures to ensure that harm is unlikely.
- Record your findings – if you employ five or more people, you must make a record of your findings. Smaller organisations are not legally obliged to record findings, but it is recommended.
- Review the controls – regularly check that the controls are still working and are effective.
Safe use of ladders
Under the law, ladders are permitted to be used for working at height if a risk assessment shows that a higher level of fall protection is not needed due to low risk and short duration of use.
If a task involves using a leaning ladder for more than 30 minutes, the Health and Safety Executive recommends using alternative equipment.
Ladders should only be used in safe conditions, such as when the floor is level and stable.
Individuals using ladders should be competent and understand how to use them safely. Working at height training may be necessary.
Before starting a task, a pre-use check of the ladder should be carried out. The user should inspect all elements of the ladder or stepladder, including the stiles, feet, rungs, locking mechanisms and stepladder platforms. If any defects are spotted, it should not be used.
If pre-use checks show the ladder is safe to use, measures to minimise the risk of a fall include:
- Only carry light materials and tools.
- Don’t overreach.
- Make sure the ladder is long or high enough for the task.
- Don’t overload the ladder.
- Make sure the ladder angle is at 75°.
- Always grip the ladder and face the ladder rungs while climbing or descending.
- Don’t work off the top three rungs.
- Make sure the ladder extends at least 1m above where the user is working.
- Don’t stand ladders on moveable objects.
The Health and Safety Executive has a detailed guide to the safe use of ladders and stepladders.
Employers are obliged to take measures to prevent falls when working at height, such as the use of roof edge protection when there is a risk of falling more than two metres. Examples of roof edge protection include handrails and guardrails designed to prevent workers from falling over the edge of a building.
To demonstrate the value of edge protection, an HSE case study outlines how an employee suffered permanent spinal injuries when he fell almost three metres from the roof of a poultry unit. The roof had no edge protection in place. The company was fined £19,500 plus costs of £3,095.
Fall arrest equipment
If the risk of a fall remains, measures need to be taken to minimise the distance and/or the consequences of a fall. Examples include the use of safety nets, airbags, industrial rope access and fall arrest systems such as safety harnesses.